I got this phrase from a time I went white water rafting on the Ocoee River in East Tennessee. The guide was doing the pre-ride safety course and explained the drill if anyone went overboard. His exact words were, “I will throw you the rope, but you must participate in your own survival.”
Wow. Talk about some serious wisdom about life in general, but I’ve used this phrase more than once to respond to someone who really didn’t want anything to do with fundraising. I have a worn-out story about someone telling me that fundraising sucked the soul out of the library. My answer was that phrase. Development officers love my story about first using the phrase, and I’ve given dozens permission to take it as their own. I have a new one, now, that I really like too: “Donors need to make a gift somewhere, why not with us?” I like this one because it doesn’t shame the fundraising-hater quite so badly. (Though when the fundraising-hater is questioning the morality of my work, the first one comes to mind more readily.)
Here’s the thing: everyone is scared at first to ask someone for money. But just because it feels uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s immoral and does not mean you are incapable of learning how to do it. Believe it or not, fundraising can actually be fun. A lot of fun. Honestly, fundraisers wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t rewarding and inspiring. Also there is great training for this. Fundraising is not a crap shoot or a hack job. There are best practices, and anyone can be trained to do it. Nonprofit organizations can no longer get away with not prioritizing fundraising. Times are changing, and organizations need private support to meet their mission. I see people out there nodding their heads, but I also still hear those same people say things like, “They aren’t even an academic. They got this job to fundraise,” or “They don’t even care about the work of the organization, the board just brought them in to raise money.” Despite the need and the professionalization of the job, we all know that this is what people think about the work we do. And this makes me just as frustrated as researchers in the field of philanthropy who think that the practice of philanthropy is not as valuable as the scholarship about it.
Organizations have to raise money. This fact is not going to change. In fact, the need for private philanthropy is only going to grow. Including funding for research. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. People who give money that they feel can make a difference in the world feel really really good about giving their money. This work really is about building a relationship with someone and giving them an opportunity to do something meaningful. Participating in the survival of an organization is an honorable role and very rewarding. The development community is strong and supportive, and professional ethics are well developed and enforced. Fundraisers are out preaching the gospel of the organization – bragging on all the people doing the work to support the mission.
So I guess my point is this: Even if you can’t bring yourself to take a significant role in the fundraising effort (and you’ll be missing out…), I do at least suggest that if a fundraiser throws you a rope that you help him or her pull you back into the boat.